(Bloomberg) -- As he campaigned recently in India’s most populous state, the firebrand Hindu nationalist priest and politician Yogi Adityanath praised U.S. President Donald Trump’s travel ban on some Muslim-majority countries.
Now, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has elevated the saffron-robed cleric to run Uttar Pradesh, a Hindu majority state of more than 200 million people, raising questions about whether divisive politics will eclipse promises of economic development.
As Adityanath, 44, was sworn in on Sunday as chief minister following the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party’s victory in the assembly elections there, Modi tweeted his party’s "sole mission" was development of the state.
But the track record of Adityanath -- who faces cases of attempted murder, criminal intimidation and inciting violence, according to an affidavit he filed with the Election Commission -- has stirred some apprehension about Modi’s pledge to build a "new India." He’s contesting those charges in court. Some fear tensions and violence among Hindus and Muslims may rise across a vast swathe of northern India, which is dominated by Uttar Pradesh.
"It’s a bit like what happens in the U.S., that Mr. Trump is not necessarily telling people to attack Indians but it is happening -- the atmosphere was created," said Ajoy Bose, a Delhi-based analyst who’s written books on local leaders. The priest’s followers could "become restless if he does not carry out their agenda" of religious extremism, he said, adding that it was still possible for the new chief minister to pursue Modi’s development agenda.
Adityanath, in comments made after his swearing-in ceremony, said he would work without discrimination. "We will ensure balanced development," he said, according to the Press Trust of India.
Adityanath is one of the most polarizing figures in Uttar Pradesh politics.
The five-time member of parliament made several provocative speeches and remarks on Muslims ahead of the BJP’s landslide victory in state elections on March 11, when the party won a clear majority of 312 seats in the 403-seat state assembly.
While campaigning, Adityanath praised Trump’s travel ban, saying India’s Hindus were under pressure to migrate from Uttar Pradesh. And he’s blamed Muslim youths for waging a "love jihad" by seducing Hindu women to convert them to Islam.
Adityanath is also a strong supporter of building a Hindu temple at the site of the destroyed Babri mosque in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh. The mosque has long been a flash point between Hindus and Muslims: Its destruction by a Hindu mob in 1992 led to riots across India. In 2002, an attack on pilgrims returning from Ayodhya led to riots in Gujarat while Modi was chief minister -- which once led the U.S. to deny him a visa. Modi has denied wrong-doing, and a Supreme Court-appointed panel found no evidence he prevented victims from receiving help.
Modi’s appointment of the Hindu hardliner could be a sign economic development is now less important than appealing to India’s majority Hindus ahead of the next general election in 2019, according to Manoj Joshi, a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.
"The appeal to hardliners looks more promising than any commitment to economic development," Joshi said. "There’s little point in putting a man there who would say, ‘I’m going to get into development.’ He wouldn’t be able to deliver in two years anyway."
Defending Adityanath’s appointment, M Venkaiah Naidu, a senior BJP cabinet minister, said it was "very unfair" to criticize the new chief minister without giving him a "fair opportunity."
Wait and see
Some analysts suggested Adityanath’s appointment did not necessarily mean a focus on politics at the expense of economic development.
A.K. Verma, director of the Centre for the Study of Society and Politics in Uttar Pradesh’s Kanpur, said Modi would not allow an appointed chief minister to do what he likes. "Any chief minister in Uttar Pradesh will have to take dictates from the prime minister’s office," he said.
Adityanath, who does not have administrative experience, faces multiple challenges as chief minister -- improving the business environment, law and order and living standards in Uttar Pradesh, which is ranked near the bottom of Indian states in many development indicators. Nearly three-in-10 people live below the poverty line, its per capita income is about half the national average and its industrial growth is one of the slowest in the country.
Saksham Khosla, a research analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace India, said Adityanath could easily tackle aspects of Modi’s election manifesto in the state, such as waiving loans for farmers, while tackling labor law reforms.
Analysts said it was uncertain what type of politics Adityanath would pursue -- which itself added political risk to the equation.
"His track record suggests he is not the right person to lead such a large state,” said Bose, the Delhi analyst. "At the same time, we cannot say for certain that he will be a disaster. We have to wait and watch."